determinism

Love Potions

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Recently, my friend, Dr. Michael LaBossiere, wrote a series of articles concerning determinism. In these articles he examines the possibility that all animal behavior, including human behavior, is essentially determined by hormones–impulses generated on the physical plane that are easily identified, their effects on the body leading to behaviors, such as in the realm of sex.

In two articles he uses the Vole, a gerbil-like creature, as his subject.  Voles are monogamous animals, a rarity in the mammalian world. Their monogamous behavior correlates with the secretion of oxytocin and vasopressin. And so, Dr. LaBossiere argues that the monogamous behavior of Voles is purely mechanistic, based on the addictive qualities of oxytocin and other pleasure-inducing hormones.  And so, if this behavior is mechanistic in nature, so are the human romantic ideals, such as love, honor, and loyalty.  The same argument can and is made for homosexuality, that it is not a choice, but an urge induced by a heretofore undiscovered  biological mechanism. Dr. Labossiere states that he believes in free will, but in his articles he seems to mostly argue for a deterministic world.

Before I endeavor to deconstruct and ultimately destroy the mechanistic view of human behavior (and it must be destroyed because, besides the fact that I believe it untrue, it is a danger to human life and happiness), let me reveal a bit of my history as a teenager and a young man.

I ran away from home 4 times before I was 16. Looking back, I consider that I was surrounded by adults that were dysfunctional and in some cases border-line insane.  I felt no love from the adults that I spent the most time with at that time. I did feel anger, hatred, enmity, and even an odd sort of competition and jealousy from them.  Their insanity was evidenced by their deep unhappiness.

An adept cut-purse, I stole voraciously, from book stores especially, and constantly conspired with other kids my age to relieve adults of the cash in their wallets. I lied constantly, skipped school regularly to the point where I had no idea what was going on in my classes. I began to fail and fail badly in school.  I enjoyed throwing rocks through windows and destroying others’ property in general and was arrested for burglary. Eventually, I dropped out of high school, and became involved with a woman who was 10 years older than I eventually siring a child out of wedlock.  My life was a disaster.  Mind you, that I was brought up Catholic, was an alter boy and a Boy Scout.  But the pain from home tore me apart, and before I was 14, I thought often of suicide.  I’ll be the first to admit that luck has a great impact on each and every one of us. Heck, as Kurt Vonnegut once observed, none of us even asked to be born so far as we know.  I don’t want to say there were no good times as a kid, but there weren’t many.  Even today when I think of my teenage years, I get nauseous.  But regardless of my circumstances, I am without excuse; I was an evil person. And don’t underestimate the age at which kids know good from evil.

Now that you know why I can never run for political office, let me indulge myself for a moment. Fast forward a decade and move further along in time after that. I graduated from college, became a police officer, and eventually joined the Army. I’m currently a staff sergeant in the US Army. My last NCO Evaluation report, written by a lieutenant, captain and major, states the following about my performance: “the most competent Senior Intelligence Sergeant in the Brigade; continuously remained well-versed on the evolution of conventional and asymetric threats…intellectual prowess and continuous mentorship developed Soldiers in analytical skills….promote to Sergeant First Class now…a top 1% NCO that always accomplishes the mission to the highest standard”.  

What changed in the last 25 years of my life? Did my hormones or brain chemicals shift to such a degree that my life did a 180 degree turn? And if they did, why?

Don’t get me wrong. All animals are influenced by hormones. Wild animals’ behavioral changes during hormonal shifts  are well documented. But it is humans’ self-awareness, reason and morality that sets us apart.  Even the much vaunted humaness of dogs seems to be overrated; dogs feel no shame, despite the sheepish look after Spot defecates in the hall.  In fact, humans seem to be the only animal that will behave in ways that spite hormonal tides.  Before I make the crux of my argument, let’s look at a couple of Dr. LaBossiere’s arguments. He writes that if fidelity is mechanistic, than humans are merely reacting to the pleasure provided them via chemical actions on the brain.

He states:

While fidelity is praised, one important question is whether or not is worthy of praise as a virtue. If humans are like voles and the mechanistic theory of human bonding is correct, then fidelity of the sort that ground pair-bonding would essentially be a form of addiction, as discussed in the previous essay. On the face of it, this would seem to show that such fidelity is not worthy of praise. After all, one does not praise crack heads for their loyalty to crack. Likewise, being addicted to love would hardly make a person worthy of praise.

One obvious counter is that while crack addiction is regarded as bad because of the harms of crack, the addiction that composes pair bonding should be generally regarded as good because of its good consequences. These consequences would be the usual sort of things people praise about pair bonding, such as the benefits to health.  However, this counter misses the point: the question is not whether pair bonding is good (it generally is in terms of consequences) but whether fidelity should be praised.

I feel these two paragraphs miss the mark, primarily because fidelity between man and woman seems anything other than an addiction–it seems like work.  People struggle to remain faithful.  Why do most people at least try to resist the urge to be unfaithful in marriage? Because they know very bad things can happen if they follow their immediate instincts.  Fidelity involves a crusade against our hormones (though there’s a lot more to sex drive than hormones).

JRR Tolkien wrote a series of letters to his oldest son, Christopher, warning him of the dangers of untamed sexual desire.

Faithfulness in Christian marriage entails that: great mortification. For a Christian man there is no escape. Marriage may help to sanctify and direct to its proper object his sexual desires; its grace may help him in the struggle; but the struggle remains. It will not satisfy him–as hunger may be kept off by regular meals. It will offer as many difficulties to the purity proper to that state, as it provides easements. No man, however truly he loved his betrothed and bride as a young man, has lived faithful to her as a wife in mind and body without deliberate conscious exercise of the will, without self-denial.

Tolkien’s view is precisely the opposite of LaBossiere’s; people struggle with fidelity, they are not addicted to it.

Before going further, let me state explicitly my thesis: the things that provide pleasure to people via increases in dopamine, seratonomin, and oxytocin can change over time, and they change primarily because thinking changes.  I used to gain pleasure from stealing and breaking windows. Now I gain pleasure from working hard, learning, writing, playing with my kids and physical training. The chemical reactions that cause me to feel pleasure remain the same, but the little understood mind changed greatly.  And I know why my mind changed: I experienced true Christianity.  I struggled for years after first experiencing it, but slowly changed over the years, like a metal refined by fire.  Consider a man who is overweight and out of shape. He does not exercise but knows he must for health reasons.  At some point his thinking on the matter changed and the seed was planted for future action. When he first starts exercising, he only feels pain. His body is telling him to stop. He is not deriving much pleasure from it at all. But he pushes through, and eventually morning runs start to feel good, his mind seems to work better, fat begins to melt off him. And so it is with almost all good habits. There is an initial period of discomfort. But as beings above mere wild animals, we can push through that pain using reason to form a vision of our goal.  After a while, we have formed a habit, and there is no longer pain, but probably quite a bit of pleasure to be gained from accomplishing what was once very difficult.

The French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne, a famous skeptic, disliked passionate feelings of love because he felt they interfered with freedom.  Many people are critical of the Christian views on sex and passion, they view (improperly) Christians as prudes whom dislike others feeling any type of sexual pleasure. This is not the case of course.  As its root, the Christian values concerning sex is about keeping one’s mind. W.B. Yeats once observed that he had witnessed more men destroyed by chasing after women then he had seen destroyed by alcohol. This from an Irishman.  Yeats and Montaigne understood that for man to act like Man, (big M intended), and not destroy himself, he must not follow every fleeting hormonal impulse.

Michel de Montaigne
Michel de Montaigne

As a man thinketh, so is he~Proverbs 23:7. And so as a person’s thinking changes, so do his habits. The ancients knew the power of habit. In fact, I believe it is the most powerful tool in existence when it comes to effecting human behavior. The first thing that I myself do when I want to accomplish something, is figure out how I can make aspects of the task a habit. This usually involves setting aside a time and place in which I always practice part of the task. I always write in the morning. I even learned a way of getting things done that aren’t pleasing: Just do one thing a day that you don’t want to do, but needs doing at some point. Just one thing. You’ll be surprised at how effective it is. And this is what I think of homosexuality: it is a habit, not something hardwired from the beginning in a homosexual’s genome.

Almost anything can become a habit, good and evil. Vince Lombardi said quitting can become a habit, Dale Carnegie said the habit of feeling sorry for yourself is the worst habit of all.

Aristotle said of habit:

Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.

In this article, I am primarily writing about physiological determinism, not cosmological determinism. That is, the idea that man does not have free will at all.  That is for another time. But it must be said here that determinism, is a major theme in leftist politics.  The belief, nay, the focal point, of this political system being that the determining factor in a man’s life is summed in the advantageous or disadvantageous situation into which he was born. That rich men are rich because they were born to lucky circumstances, and the poor people are poor because they were born to poor people.   But my interpretation of conservative politics, as I practice them, is to ask each person: What can you do right now to improve your lot and the lot of others? I see leftist politics as one giant antithesis of Carnegie’s admonition,  the leftist declares: The best habit is to feel sorry for yourself. And he hopes that men who don’t feel sorry for themselves, ie the men who make the world work, will give him some free stuff.  In other words, the view is self-serving, not “sympathetic.”

Finally, we must ask: How is the deterministic view helpful? If I truly am moved about like a puppet by hormones and impulses randomly bursting in my brain, what changes if I believe otherwise? But now ask yourself, what if we are not absolutely controlled by a domino effect of physiological input, but I believe and act as if I  am, what changes then? A great deal. A very great deal.